To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
― Mary Oliver
Epilogue: The Last Song of Éadig and Sídhadonnen
63, Fourth Age of the Sun
King Éomer Éadig, Lord of the Mark, the Lion of Rohan, was not scared of death.
Though he came to be the King of the Riddermark and a good part of his life was spent in building and mending his kingdom, he was still first and foremost a warrior.
And the first lesson of a warrior is that of facing death: the day they had given him a sword they had also told him that any morrow could be his last. Any patrol could prove fatal, and any battle might end for him with his demise. It was something he learned to accept, and so he was not fearful when he rode to wars. In fact, he even thought it likely that he should lose his life on the battlefield. For the days of his youth were filled with struggle, and it was in the prime of his manhood that the War of the Ring was fought.
Sometimes, it had been so dark, and the future had seemed bleak. Spots of golden light had lingered here and there, passing just by his fingertips, and he had thought they were not meant for him... until the day he rode to Rivendell and found again that which had been lost.
The Lion of Rohan battled and survived, and he came to know so much more life than he had known death. As time went by and his last fight was left victorious in the years of the warlike past, he began to understand that it was not by sword that he would die.
There was so much to live for and the years of his life were truly Blessed.
As there is time and place for all things to flourish and to live, so does come the time to let go.
Lothíriel never really learned to dress properly for the chilly winters of Rohan. Often she was preoccupied by her duties as the Queen, and she just plain forgot that she was not wearing her cloak or that her gown was not warm enough for trudging outside. When she had been young, she had conquered her colds easily. But on her old age, she was not so strong anymore.
In the end, it was all so fast, like a candle blown out. On one night of late February, less than two weeks after she had got sick, she asked him to hold her. And he did, gathering her in his arms like he had done so many, many times before. The weight of her was so light, and she looked frail – deep down he had known she was fading and it scared him so much, and he wanted to ask her to stay for a little while more. But her face was peaceful and her smile gentle, and he realised it was far more terrifying for him than it was for her. His beloved Queen was not afraid at all and he knew he had to let her go. She lay there in his arms and brushed his cheek with her fingers and told him time and again how she loved him... as if she had known this was the end. Then, after they had shared one last kiss, she fell asleep and he held her until the morning though he knew she was gone.
They said Éomer King was never the same again after his wife the Queen died. Well, it was likely that they were right in saying so. 60 years of life and sun he had shared together with his wife, and when it came to an end, it was as if a fleeting dream of spring had passed. But she was such an integral part of him... she was necessary, almost like air. The threads of their lives had been woven together so tightly that they had come to support each other – they had become each other – and when one thread was cut away, the other could not endure alone. When she was gone, he knew it would not be long until he'd leave too.
She was, after all, the Queen of his heart and the companion of his soul.
And so his friends, those of them who were still alive, were called to meet him one last time. Masters Meriadoc and Peregrin from the Shire, ever-youthful Aragorn and Arwen, Éowyn and Faramir, and even Amrothos along with Sídhadonnen and Alphros. So many faces were gone now, yet still some remained... but the next time they'd gather together would not be in this world.
It is the blood of Númenor, Éomer thought to himself as he looked at Aragorn. Though his friend's hair had turned silver and there were laugh lines about his bright grey eyes, he was not a picture of old age. His back was still straight, his arm was strong, and his step was light as any young man's. He'd ride into many a battle yet, side by side with Elfwine.
As for Éomer himself... he knew he looked his age, and he felt like it too. Probably thanks to the blood of Morwen Steelsheen he had been strong and energetic even on his later years. But no one was like Aragorn, the last of the Númenoreans.
Years ago, when he had looked in mirror and first realised his youth was fading, Éomer had thought of Aragorn's long life as a blessing. But now, at the edge of night, he was not so sure of that anymore. His friend would have a long life, yes... but he'd also live to see all his friends in grave.
He has his Queen, though. I'd have endured all if I had mine too.
"What are you thinking of so intently, brother?" Aragorn asked. They were strolling in the garden behind Meduseld, the one she had restored and was now lovingly looked after by others. Sometimes, Éomer found himself taking support from his friend's arm. As always, Aragorn was happy to provide it. And there was no shame in that.
"Just... remembering", Éomer said. He smiled as he cast a look at his fellow king. "Where did all the years go, Aragorn? I thought we had plenty of time still."
"We lived those years, my friend. Oh yes, we have lived", said the older man, and his smile was bittersweet.
"Aye", Éomer agreed. He stopped and looked at Aragorn, briefly reminiscing all the things they had achieved together, all the wars they had fought and won... "It has been a good life. We have seen much, and done even more. We can be proud."
"Indeed. And the world will be very different when you are gone, you who they should call Oathkeeper. I've asked much of you and received even more, and I am thankful. A man could not hope for a better friend... and a king could not dream of a finer ally", said Elessar, and his grey eyes shone. There was love there, the kind that only two friends could share.
"And I'd do it all again, weather every storm... I'd give anything if I could ride by your side just for one last time, but I fear I am too old for that now. There is only one ride left for me now", Éomer answered quietly, resting his hand on his friend's shoulder. He fell silent for a moment, until he spoke again: "I'd ask of you one more thing, Aragorn. My family... watch over them when I'm gone."
Gently, Aragorn squeezed Éomer's shoulder.
"I will, brother. You can go in peace, for the House of Eorl will endure."
Little Elfhild looked so much like her that he knew one day, the likeness of Lothíriel Queen would walk these lands once more. Indeed, the girl was almost the spitting image of his wife when she had been couple years younger than Elfhild was now. Curiously enough, and despite all his weariness and the growing wish in his heart to join her, he felt sad for knowing he wouldn't be there to see the golden days of Elfhild's youth.
Nevertheless, it was not wondered about among the members of his household why the old King so much liked to have his youngest great-grandchild sit on his lap or play about his feet these days. Truth be told, he saw her in all his children and grandchildren, in the shades of their eyes or hair, or in their height and build, or in their smiles and small expressions that would momentarily bring her back. But none other resembled her as much as Elfhild did.
The years had filled the Golden Hall with so much laughter, the sound of running feet, and shouts and joy, that he was certain somewhere in the ceiling some echo of it all must still be bouncing about. Somehow, the past was getting brighter and brighter.
And the present...
The present was a world without Lothíriel. It was a place he had hoped he wouldn't have to see again.
His thoughts were then interrupted, as Elfhild looked up at him. She had sat just by his feet, playing with two of her favourite toys: a wooden horse and a swan. Those two objects had passed from hands to hands, from Elfwine to his siblings and then his children, and now to the daughter of his son Eadric. Plain they might be, but they had been well loved over the years.
"Why are you crying, Grandfather Éomer?" asked Elfhild softly. He smiled at the child and shifted on his seat, feeling the weariness deep in his bones. It's not long now. Wait for me, Lothíriel.
"It's all right, little one", he told her gently, fighting his tears. The little girl rose up on her feet, holding the wooden swan and horse to her chest. She climbed up to his lap and settled there. She gave him the horse, and the familiar rough lines of the parting gift he had given to his Princess so many years ago were ever so familiar under his fingers. When Elfhild looked at him again, she was so... so like her.
"I miss her too, Grandfather", she said softly.
"Aye", he answered and planted a kiss on his great-granddaughter's forehead.
"What are you two scheming here? Should I call Elfwine and tell him to muster the Rohirrim?" asked the voice of Éowyn, his dear sister. She had aged beautifully and still retained her graceful posture even on her old age. The Princess of Ithilien was a legend in every sense, and dearly beloved by her two peoples.
"Now, let us not get ahead of ourselves, sister", said Éomer and turned to look at her with a smile. He hoped she wouldn't see what Elfhild had seen, but of course that was a foolish wish. Éowyn always saw, always knew. After all, she was his sister.
She came to his side and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. No words were needed between the two children of Éomund. Somehow, in the simple touch of his sister's hand, there was comfort. Just like there had been in the hands of their mother.
He looked up at her, and he smiled again. Who would have thought that they'd both have so little, yet come to receive so much?
There were tears in Éowyn's eyes now too, but then she blinked them away and grinned at Elfhild.
"You really like that swan, don't you?" she asked the girl, who grinned back at her great-grandaunt.
"I do, Lady Éowyn! Swans are really beautiful. I'd like to have them here in Edoras too", Elfhild answered. Éowyn smiled.
"Éomer, why don't you tell her about that time when a swan came to Edoras and turned out to be a beautiful Queen?" she asked. That had Elfhild's eyes widening with excitement, and she grabbed her great-grandfather's hand.
"Please, tell me about the swan!" she exclaimed. Éomer kissed the top of her head and settled back on his throne.
"Very well, little one", he agreed. Éowyn took a seat beside them, and both the Lady and the girl wore faces of curiosity. Éomer cleared his throat, and he began: "Many years ago, when the shadows fell deep on the land of the Mark, a swan clad in blue and silver came at dusk to Aldburg..."
It was Elfgifu who found him at last.
His poor girl looked like she had jumped straight from the bed and tossed on the first gown she had found before rushing out. He knew he had done wrong in venturing out like this, but Éomer had wished for the solitude: a rare thing for a king. And he knew very well that his strength, something he once could always trust on, was failing him. Soon he would not be able to do this anymore. So, a while before sunrise he had sent his guards at the door to fetch him a large barrel of ale. The two had probably thought the King was starting to lose it in his old age and in his grief for his beloved wife, but that didn't matter. It wasn't ale he was interested in, but the moment of their distraction... which he could use to slip out. Though his step was not light as it used to be, he was still capable of some sneaking about.
He knew how it must have turned out. The guards would have returned with ale and found him gone. And now everyone was looking him back in Meduseld, and no doubt they thought he had decided to crawl into some hole and die... but Elfgifu knew better, like she always did. Out of his children, Elfgifu understood him the best.
"Father! What on earth were you thinking, leaving your rooms without saying anything?" she exclaimed at the sight of him. Éomer gave his daughter a helpless little smile.
"I just came to visit your mother", he answered softly, gesturing at the gravestone. She rested there among the other deceased members of the royal house, not far from Théodred.
His daughter's face became softer at that, and quietly she came to stand beside him. She looked down at her mother's grave, but he was watching at her. She had his golden hair, and also his formidable height. In fact, before she had married Prince Eldarion, people had often said she was the tallest woman in all of the Mark. But in her face, there was something that reminded Éomer of his own mother, especially when she was lost in her thoughts and her expression softened like that. They had named her Elfgifu, which meant "gift from the elves"... it had been to honour the gift Master Elrond had given them in saving her life.
"You miss her terribly, don't you?" said his daughter softly. It wasn't really a question.
"More than you can imagine. She was... she was more than just the love of my life. She was my soul. And it is hard to live without it, when it is gone", he answered plainly.
His daughter looked at him, her eyes sorrowing. She knew.
"You'll be gone soon, too. Won't you, Father?" she asked softly.
Éomer did not know other way to answer her question than just nod. Elfgifu let out a wavering breath and her eyes filled with tears. Then she wrapped her arms about him and hugged him tight.
"I'd ask you to stay for a little while more, Father, but... I understand. It's no secret how much you loved Mother, and I know you must go. It's just... the world without the two of you seems so wrong. I suppose we all thought you would live forever", she whispered into her father's shoulder. He held her for a while, wishing there had been some way to comfort her.
He gently pushed her back a little bit, so that he could see her face.
"I am old, dear daughter. I've had a full life, I have lived, laughed, and cried. I've had my fill. Now I'm tired... so tired. Don't despair because of me, Elfgifu. When I go, I'll go with a light heart and unregretful", Éomer told his daughter and gave her a small smile. "I just don't know how to live without your mother. I hope you can forgive me that."
"Father, I..." she started, but then stopped to search for words. At last, she smiled through her tears. "Give her my love when you are reunited, will you?"
"That I will, daughter", he promised and kissed her forehead. "Now, I believe we should get back before Elfwine musters the Rohirrim to look for us."
Elfgifu wiped away her tears, linked her arm with that of her father, and together they made their way back to Meduseld.
Elfwine the Fair, they called his first-born son. He could see why it was, for his heir was the image of princes and kings of old. And he was not just fair in looks, but also in mind.
Éomer was proud of his son. Their son. He'd make a good king and the Mark would be in safe hands, and the King they called Blessed could sleep peacefully under a mound of Simbelmynë. Elfwine was his legacy. And through him, his children and his children's children, the House of Eorl would endure, long after the life and the love of Éomer King and Lothíriel Queen had passed into a song and become a tale of yore.
"Is all well, Father?" asked his son that night, after they had bid goodnight to the guests and Elfwine had seen him to bed. Often these nights, Éomer found his son sitting by his bedside for some time before going to bed himself, and they'd speak of many things: of years gone by, the wars they had fought together, of the Mark and their plans for future of the kingdom... sometimes, Éomer would fall asleep listening to his son speak, and when he was in that place between dream and awakeness, it was like in Elfwine's voice there was an echo of her.
"Of course, son. Why do you ask?" Éomer asked back and watched his son. Indeed there were often moments when he reminded the King so much of his wife.
"You were quiet tonight", Elfwine said softly and studied the aged face of his father.
"I suppose I am just tired. I keep forgetting I'm not as young as I used to be", said the King and settled more comfortably against the pillows. At that, his son rolled his eyes.
"Quite the opposite, Father. I don't think you'll ever really get old", he told him, which made Éomer laugh.
"How do you think I've lived this long?" he commented, and his son smiled. But then Elfwine's face became serious.
"You won't, though. You'll never get old, Father", he said softly. His words had Éomer lifting his eyebrows.
"Why is that, son?" he inquired.
"Because you're the last legendary king of the Mark. In future, they'll sing songs of Eorl the Young, Helm Hammerhand, Théoden the Renewed, and Éomer the Blessed. But not of Elfwine", the prince said. His voice was not regretful, though – just plain and declarative. Then he smiled again, "The Mark won't remember you as you are now. You will be recalled as the Lion of Rohan, the legend and a hero who walked among the men, and when they sing of you, they will sing of a tall warrior king."
"I never thought of it that way", Éomer confessed. "I just did what needed to be done."
"I know that, Father. But I don't think many would have been able to do the same", his son argued. The King looked at his heir; though he was his father, he was also the King... and he had lived in an extraordinary age, when a bit of enchantment of yore still lingered in the mortal world, and elves had walked here, and though days had been uncertain they had also made it possible for a man to become more than he was. Times such as his were bound to cast a light of legends over anyone. Perhaps it was understandable that sometimes even his son could not see through that golden shine that was having fought and ridden in the company of heroes.
"Hmm. The Children of Men can do many things, sometimes beyond their own expectation. I think there's a chance for greatness in everyone... if one dares to take that road. Have faith in your kin, my son", Éomer told him. Then he smiled. "You'll do fine, when your turn comes. We are very proud of you."
Then, as if in afterthought, he pulled off the ring from his third finger, where it had been ever since she had given it to him. He took his son's hand and placed Lothíriel's ring on Elfwine's palm.
"Here. Take this, my son. I'd think your mother would like you to have it", he said quietly. Elfwine's eyes widened with surprise.
"Father, I can't take this!" he argued.
"Please, son. Take it and wear it, like I've worn it all the days of my life since she gave it to me. I... I believe it would be right if this was passed down our line, in the memory and honour of the woman who did not only make me king in so many ways, but also made me feel like one", Éomer said, smiling at his son. "If I'm a legend, it is only because of her."
The prince smiled as his hand closed around the ring and suddenly, there were tears in his eyes. He patted his sire's shoulder.
"Go to sleep, Father", Elfwine said and turned to leave, but then out of impulse, Éomer caught his hand. His son looked back at him, a quizzical look on his face.
"Did I ever tell you how I met your mother?"
His son stayed with him past midnight, listening to him tell stories of years past. They talked of her, too. Éomer rarely spoke of her like that, so Elfwine was eager to stay and listen. In a way, it almost made them feel like she was still here, sitting with them and smiling at the things they said. But finally, Éomer felt weariness settling in and his son squeezed his hand for the last time. Then the Prince bid him good night and left the chamber, and silence fell over the room.
Like he did every night, Éomer briefly buried his face in her pillow. He had not allowed the servants to take it away, as if she would return any moment and lay herself there, where her place was beside him. The scent of her hair still clung to the pillow and he breathed it in... if he closed his eyes, he could see how she looked like when she slept.
Then he settled back on his own side and let out a long sigh. He was so tired...
"Good night, Lothíriel."
It is easier than falling asleep.
At first, he thinks he is dreaming. The light around him is grey as he speeds forward and he can't see the sun behind the clouds. There is the scent of rain in the air and true enough, he can feel the gentle patter of it, though it doesn't seem like it drenches him.
He is riding over the plains of the Mark, all alone. When he looks at the horse that carries him he notices it is none other than his faithful Firefoot... and his hands grasping the reins are not the hands of an old king. Rather, they look like they did when he was a young man.
And he feels strong, the way he was in the glory of his manhood. All exhaustion and aches of old age are gone. Long time ago he knew well how it felt like to be powerful... but now he is surprised, for he has already forgotten the feel of it. It is so strange and familiar at the same time that he wants to laugh.
He rides forward, somehow knowing that his direction is West... though he does not precisely know where he is going. But it does not matter. It has been a while since he has been able to ride like this and he has missed it. For the moment, he just enjoys the feel of wind and rain on his face as he races. Even Firefoot does not show signs of wearing down.
But then it changes. The grey rain curtain pulls back and he is not riding anymore, but flying, floating like he was weightless. Light becomes bright and he is momentarily blinded. And then... he can see it. Everything turns into silver glass.
There is light on the waves as they roll to the white shores. Beyond the shore, there is a beautiful green country, and the wind carries sweet scents from the forests and gardens of that land. Somewhere far, he thinks he can hear soft singing voices, and the sea carries a song so devastatingly beautiful that he feels his very core tremble for it.
The air bears him and now he can see something like a harbour... only, it is not really a proper harbour at all, like she would probably tell him if she were here. There are no buildings in sight – only a small dock built of white stone, and delicate little ship waiting to set sail. There it is that he lands, and he can feel the stone under his bare feet. Somehow, it does not feel cold. He looks around and notes that it is not sunrise yet, but it isn't dark either: there is a strange light about him but he can't tell its origin.
Éomer looks at the ship and wonders: what now? Is he supposed to step into that ship? And if he does, where will it take him? It is made of light wood and it looks like how he used to imagine the ships his aunt spoke of in her stories... the elven ships that would pass from the western shores of Middle-earth and then vanish with the last light of day.
But his thoughts are interrupted then, for there is a voice, a voice so beloved and he has missed it so much, and it speaks: "Hello, Éomer."
And he turns around and there she is, the companion of his heart and soul! Her hair, not white like the last time he saw her but once more midnight black, falls down to her waist... her face, young and fair... and her eyes, sparkling and full of love for him. She is dressed in plain white gown and she looks more beautiful than he has ever seen her. She smiles and spreads her arms in an invitation, and he does not need more encouragement, for he has longed for her touch so much that the absence of it has become agony.
But now that agony is ended.
"Lothíriel!" he exclaims; he is in the front of her with one long leap, and then she is in his arms once again, where she belongs.
It is a long while they do not speak, but when she finally does, she smiles.
"They told me I should go already. One should not linger here, between the two places. But I said I could not go without you. After all, I did tell you that I would not let you face the unknown alone. That was my promise", she says and her smile widens. "Yet I feared that I might have to wait long for you. You were so strong in life... I thought maybe you would live to be a hundred years old."
That makes him snort.
"Had you lived with me, I no doubt would have endured a thousand years", he says, tracing her face with his fingers. Seeing her here, he feels mended... he feels complete again. "But if you go, I go too."
"I am glad", she whispers and he kisses her. Then she looks at him more seriously. "How are the children?"
"They are well. They miss you, my love. Elfgifu sends you her love... I do not suppose it was easy for her to accept you're gone. And Elfwine will have more grandchildren soon. Our little Elsunn is with child, and she thinks it's going to be a girl. She says she's going to name the child after you", he tells her and she smiles brilliantly.
"Elsunn will make a fine mother. I am glad to hear we will be remembered. And sweet Elfgifu... I wish I could tell her that I love her too. But she knows that, in her heart", Lothíriel says, her voice gentle. He nods at her words.
"It has been so lonely without you, min léofe. You left quite a hole in all our lives... but none so great than the one in my heart", he says.
"I am with you now", she tells him in quiet, gentle tones, and as an answer he can only smile.
She takes his hand then, holding it between her own two.
"It's almost time. We should go", she says softly, casting a look at the ship.
"And where will it take us?" he asks. Not that he is afraid. After all, they are together.
His question makes her smile again; it is a brilliant smile, and serene, and bereft of all sorrows of the world. In it, he sees her, and all the times of her life: the child he saved from the waves, the girl whose letters brought light into the middle of many concerns, the young woman who bewitched him and made him hers, his wife and the mother of his children, the constant and the light – his mate in all ways.
"Home", she simply answers, and that one word makes his heart swell with warmth and peace. Home. Then she takes a step towards the ship, "Come, my beloved king. It is time for us to move on."
But then he looks back, to the way he has come from... and it is almost as if he could see through time and space, through the grey rain curtain, or perhaps he is just remembering... and there is the land of his forefathers and the land of his children. Edoras, the Riddermark, and his people, and the realm he has lived for and fought for. Suddenly, it is a hard and bittersweet thing, to leave that all behind...
She knows what he is thinking – a lifetime together has helped her to perfect that skill. She turns his face so that their eyes meet, and her gaze is gentle.
"Do not fear for them. Our children and grandchildren will do just fine, and Elfwine will be a good king. It's their time and turn now. You have done your part, Éomer King. Now come and rest with me. House of Eorl will endure", she says softly.
She is right. He smiles, squeezes her hand, and lets go. He is free.
Lothíriel answers his smile with one of her own and pulls at his hand. He follows her and they step into the ship; in doing so, he feels freedom in the way he has never experienced before... he is free of the world, of its cares and sorrows, and he understands: there is no grief in letting go.
And the wind picks up and the sail billows, and soon the white dock falls back as they begin their one last journey together. He joins her at the bow of the ship, winding his arms about her form. She leans against him and in silence, they look forwards.
The sun is soaring now, and the green land is left behind. Éomer rests his cheek against Lothíriel's hair and watches the light grow around them with new day, and he feels wonder as they sail together into the briliance of the rising morrow.
A/N: And here we are, at the story's end. I must admit is harder to let go of this story than I expected, and yes, I did sob a little bit when I edited this. That may or may not have something to do that I was also listening to Hans Zimmer's song Time while I was editing this epilogue. That piece has all the feelings of loving and losing and the bittersweetness that, I hope, are also present in this final part of Heart's Desire.
I'm not sure if what I wrote of Mannish afterlife, of seeing the Undying Lands and then sailing away from the circles of the world, is completely canon. But when I tried to think of a different way about it, it felt wrong. At least this version feels like the right one to me and I couldn't find it in myself to change that. And I'm a romantic in the sense that I wanted to see them reunited in afterlife... and then moving on together. Lothíriel did promise not to let him face the unknown alone, after all.
It has been quite a ride, and I have enjoyed it much. Like I said before, I've put a lot of creative and emotional force into this story and I wonder if I'll ever be able to write anything like this again... I acknowledge it is not a perfect story, probably not even my best one, but... well, it was the one I had to write. Checking back, I've noticed many things I'll have to fix. So I believe I'll come back to editing this some time soon, perhaps when I need a bit of a break from House of Sun.
Let me thank you, dear readers, for one last time! All the comments are appreciated. Special thanks to Talia119 and BrightWatcher for all your insights - they have been of more help than you know.
Thank you once more, and see you again in the next installment of House of Sun!